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Rosenwald Schools: A Birthday Gift with Boundless Possibilities of Unity



Celebrating my 73rd birthday in January was more than a personal milestone, it was a profound blessing from the Lord. While there is certainly gratitude in receiving gifts, each passing year brings even greater joy when I use my birthday to bestow blessings on family and friends. During my recent birthday celebration, the intention was to bless 73 friends with an invitation to break bread. However, as the number swelled to over 100 people, my heart also swelled with joy.


At the heart of inspirational birthday giving stands Julius Rosenwald, a philanthropist who, in 1912, on his fiftieth birthday, bestowed a staggering $25,000 gift upon the Tuskegee Institute led by Booker T. Washington.  The generous donation would be equivalent to nearly $1 million today. The funds were to be distributed as grants to African American schools embracing Washington's model of self-reliance.


Fast forward to 1917, Rosenwald established The Rosenwald Fund, contributing to the construction of over 5,000 schools for Black children across 15 southern states. A question arises, Why did a Jewish American businessman from Chicago invest substantial time and treasure in supporting communities hundreds of miles away, predominantly African American and Christian?


Rosenwald's vision extended beyond individual success. He understood that the prosperity of young Black kids in the southeast equated to success for all. The objective was to cultivate self-reliance through education, nurture a cadre of qualified teachers, and prioritize well-constructed schools. In 2020, the U.S. Congress passed the Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Schools Act to determine the “suitability and feasibility of designating the sites as a unit of the National Park System, including an interpretive center in or near Chicago, Illinois.”


The National Park Service highlights the delight black students found in their new schools, despite beginning their mornings with chores like sweeping classrooms, collecting wood, and drawing water from a well. Before Rosenwald schools, many students lacked a permanent place to meet.


Collaboration within communities was pivotal, even if met with some unease due to Rosenwald's stipulations, requiring local government maintenance agreements with the schools. In an era of severe racial segregation, where separate despite the law, was not equal, government education funds often went to white schools only.


Rosenwald's investment served as the foundation, upon which rural Blacks could build.  In many cases the Black farmers and laborers matched and even surpassed Rosenwald’s gifts.  They, like the enslaved generations before them and the Civil Rights generation after them, understood with clarity the importance of education.  


This collaborative legacy reminds us, we are one blood, one human race. In a nation representing the greatest experiment in democracy the world has ever known, our full American story overflows with instances like the collaboration between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington—a testament to the boundless possibilities of unity and shared progress.


Every day, I see these boundless possibilities to achieve noble ends when communities unite despite their apparent differences.  I want to share more of those stories with you.  To learn more about the Rosenwald schools and other lessons of unity that give The Full American Story, be sure to subscribe to my newsletter by visiting AlvedaKing.com.



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